With less than three weeks to go before Virginia voters elect a new governor, Democratic nominee Ralph Northam sent out a campaign flier this week promoting the top of the party’s ticket that omitted the name and picture of Justin Fairfax, his black running mate.
The decision to remove Fairfax, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, came at the request of officials at Laborers’ International Union of North America, or LiUNA, who decided against endorsing Fairfax because of his refusal to support pet projects backed by the union, including two natural gas pipelines that are proposed to cross Virginia.
Yielding to the union demands and sending out the campaign literature, which states it was produced and paid for by the Northam campaign, displays a shockingly tone-deaf insensitivity to black Virginia voters, said Quentin James, executive director of The Collective, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee that seeks to elect black candidates to statewide offices.
“It sends a signal across the state that we, as black voters, are expendable.”
“This is a slap in the face to Justin and to black voters in Virginia,” James said in an interview. “It sends a signal across the state that we, as black voters, are expendable.”
Surely Virginia Democrats don’t want to send that message to black voters, who are expected to cast pivotal ballots in the November 7 election. According to a recent report in Mother Jones, black voters make up one-fifth of the state’s electorate and were largely responsible for current Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s narrow victory in 2013.
As one of only two states holding elections this year, many political observers are watching the November 7th election in Virginia as a bellwether of Democratic strength for the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. Virginia was the only southern state that rejected Donald Trump and supported Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election.
Given what’s at stake for Democrats, it’s mindboggling that someone inside the Northam campaign didn’t kill the fliers before they were printed, let alone distributed. The decision was made to appease LiUNA, which contributed about $600,000 to the coordinated state Democratic campaign, said a Northam campaign official who agreed to speak freely only without attribution.
A statement released by the Northam campaign praised Fairfax as “clearly the best choice for LT. Governor in November,” but also defended the controversial ad. “One piece of literature carried by LiUNA canvassers does not change that,” the statement said. “Out of over 3 million pieces of literature printed for the campaign, the piece for LiUNA canvassers constituted roughly 0.5% of the literature printed. These doors have also received literature for the full ticket — as have roughly 1.5 million households in Virginia.”
The Northam official declined to address the appearance of racial bias by the campaign for sending out literature that included two white Democrats but deleted the lone black Democrat on the ticket. “I think that’s the wrong question to ask,” the official said.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Fairfax characterized the campaign’s decision to omit him from the fliers as a “mistake,” but stopped short of calling out racial bias.
Calls and emails for comments from LiUNA officials were not immediately returned. However, Brian Petruska, general counsel with the LiUNA Mid-Atlantic Region Organizing Coalition, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the union asked the Northam campaign to take Fairfax’s name off similar fliers so that its members could distribute them. That request was made, he told the newspaper, because union didn’t endorse for his failure to complete a questionnaire and “wasn’t supporting us on the issues.”